Mechanical bull riding, ax throwing, animal petting and beer drinking will be going on outside the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns this weekend. That’s hardly as unique as what will be going on inside the facility, at least in the eyes of United States Speed Skating coach Ryan Shimabukuro.
On the 400-meter ice track inside, the best long-distance skaters on the planet will compete head to head during the International Skating Union’s World Single Distance Championships, which are scheduled to run Thursday through Sunday. Though it is one of three long-track speed skating world championships, the single-distance championship is modeled after the way the sport is competed at the Olympics — with a men’s and women’s champion at each distance — and is considered the premiere long-track event in non-Olympic years. In addition, all but two of the current long-track world records were set at the Oval, and it is possible the missing marks in the women’s 5,000 meters and men’s 3,000 meters could fall this weekend.
What really makes it special in Shimabukuro’s opinion, however, is that for the first, and perhaps only, time in their careers, his athletes will have a home crowd behind them for the event.
“It’s been 13 years since we’ve had a World Single Distance Championships here,” said Shimabukuro, who experienced the most recent one during his first stint with U.S Speedskating, which lasted from 1999 to 2014. “It might be their only chance get to skate in front of a home crowd and on their own track.”
In 20 years, the single distance championships have been held in the U.S. only three times. All of them have been at the Oval, including an Olympic test event in 2001 and another championship weekend in 2007.
Even U.S. Speedskating veteran Joey Mantia, 31, wasn’t on the scene then. He began his senior international tour in 2012-13. Mantia said, though, that it’s always nice to skate on home ice, and he’ll try to harness the hometown energy as he attempts to win his third straight world title in the men’s mass start. The three-time Olympian will also compete in the 1,000 and in the 1,500 — the distance at which he scored a bronze medal last week in Calgary.
“Right now, I’m OK. I feel prepared,” Mantia said when asked if he was experiencing any pre-race jitters. “All I can do is race to the best of my ability. With mass start, there’s a little bit of luck that goes into it. I have to hope nobody takes me out. But as far as what I can control, I feel pretty comfortable right now.”
In addition to Mantia, Brittany Bowe has established herself as a title contender for the U.S. The Floridian holds the world record in the women’s 1,000 (1 minute, 11.61 seconds), is the defending champion and currently leads the World Cup standings at that distance. She also took bronze in the 1,500 last year at the championships in Germany. Meanwhile Mia Manganello Kilburg, also of Florida, is a dark horse in the women’s mass start. She won her first individual medal, a bronze, at the World Cup in Japan in December and is ranked fifth in the overall standings.
Even for the U.S. athletes who seem out of the running for a medal, though, there’s still plenty on the line. In addition to world titles, U.S. skaters will be chasing funding for next season, which is closely tied to their results this weekend.
“Obviously, it’s the biggest competition of the year, especially for the Americans,” Shimabukuro said. “It adds a little something being on your home track. They’re definitely looking to have their best performances of the season here.”
The same may not be said for the people throwing axes at the booth outside. Part of the Legacy Winter Festival, that activity and others, including a petting zoo, face painting and live music, are free to the public.
WORLD SINGLE DISTANCE CHAMPIONSHIPS
• Thursday, 12:30 p.m. — Ladies 3000m, Men’s 5000m, Team Sprints
• Friday, 2 p.m. — Men’s 10K, Ladies Team Pursuit, Ladies and Men’s 500m
• Saturday, 12:30 p.m. — Ladies 5000m, Ladies and Men’s 1000m, Men’s Team Pursuit
• Sunday, 12:30 p.m. — Ladies and Men’s 1500m and Mass Start
Where: Utah Olympic Oval, 5663 S. Cougar Lane, Kearns
Cost: $18 adults; $7 ages 6-12
What is it?: The International Skating Union holds three world championships in long-track speed skating. The single distance championships are a byproduct of the Olympics and, like that event, reward skaters for their performance at a single distance. It will serve as a distant preview of the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.
How does it differ from the other world championships?: The other two world championships combine skaters’ performances at multiple distances to determine a winner. In the Allround, skaters compete at all four distances — the 500, 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000 for women and the 500, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 for men. The sprint championships, meanwhile, honor the fastest skaters in the 500 and 1,000 combined.
How often is it held?: Annually except in Winter Olympics years.
What is on the line?: In addition to world titles, United States skaters are skating for funding for the next season. Athletes who do well at the single distance championships typically receive the most funding regardless of their performance on the World Cup circuit and in other international competitions.